When the Ramones released their first album in 1976, corporate American radio reacted as if someone had belched at a board meeting. In a way, this response was entirely appropriate: after all, it was the Ramones’ utter contempt for mid-Seventies superstar-saturated radio that had compelled these self-styled oddballs from Queens to pick up their instruments in the first place. Armed with simple sentiments (“I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You”), modest technical goals (faster! louder!) and a singer who never dropped his New York squonk except when affecting a Liverpudlian accent straight off Meet the Beatles, the Ramones aimed their rude sonic blatz directly at the dark heart of all that was bloated, decrepit and boring in big-time rock. They’ve been firing at this lumbering, sclerotic target ever since.
That the no-frills musical message the Ramones helped carry out of New York City’s CBGB’s and other punk clubs has finally hit home is evidenced all around us, though not necessarily in ways the group may have wished. With punk rock popularly discredited following the flameout of the Sex Pistols in 1978, radio finally acceded to the more acceptable New Wave bands — a mixed blessing probably, but better than no change at all. True, one is hard pressed to work up much of a sweat over such glib and stylistic crypt robbers as the Knack, or even so innocuous an entertainer as Joe Jackson. On the other hand, one is cravenly grateful not to have Emerson, Lake and Palmer to kick around anymore.
The official demise of punk left the Ramones in an artistic bind, however. Surely they were aware, as Neil Young once noted, that rust never sleeps. But just as certainly, they saw no point in simply burning out (à la Johnny Rotten & Company) either. And so, after releasing three of the more wonderful records of the Seventies — LPs whose strict stylistic concision was an integral part of their charm — the group began, on Road to Ruin (1978), to experiment with its sound, building it up from ground zero with the cautious addition of acoustic twelve-strings and even guitar solos.
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Such refinements, however tentative, would have been unthinkable in the heyday of punk. That the Ramones were able to subtly broaden their horizons without sinking into the studio-bred sterility against which they had originally reacted was a tribute both to their commitment to their chosen form (short and sweet) and to their generally unheralded abilities as perhaps the most prolific and adept trash-rock tunesmiths since the golden years of Broadway’s Brill Building (when songwriting teams like Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich cranked out hits-to-order for everyone from Eydie Gorme to Little Eva). Ramones songs may sometimes seem like little more than melodic blueprints, but the best of them partake as wholeheartedly and convincingly of the teen tradition as did any of their predecessors’ classics, and are just as instantly engaging.
In view of this central songwriting strength (e.g., such minimasterworks as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Carbona Not Glue” and the irresistible “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”), it was virtually inevitable that the Ramones, as avatars of a rejuvenated teen ethos, would one day collaborate with the man who, in the early Sixties, carried the unerring melodicism of the Brill Building writers to its stylistic apogee. Not that one-time boy wonder Phil Spector has had much else to occupy his artistic impulses lately. His last production, Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man (1977), was so disastrously ill-conceived on Spector’s part that it seemed a grim and inexplicable confirmation of the final waning of his once-extraordinary powers. Yet if the Ramones sought new textures and room to move around in as they headed into the Eighties, then surely Phil Spector would understand. He might even have similar yearnings himself.
The much-anticipated meeting of these two Walls of Sound was bound to be a bit anticlimactic. What was Spector to make of the Ramones in the studio? He had already bequeathed them his celebrated sound some fifteen years earlier, via all those booming, jangling smash singles he created for the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love, et al. Johnny Ramone could duplicate that sound just by jacking his guitar up to ten and letting it rip — no problem. What the Ramones needed now was something new. So did Spector.
The good news is that End of the Century is the most commercially credible album the Ramones have ever made. And they did it without compromising their very real artistic premises. This LP is also Phil Spector’s finest and most mature effort in years, undoubtedly his most restrained production since his work with John Lennon in the early Seventies. Surprisingly, End of the Century doesn’t sound like the end of the world overdubbed on twenty-four tracks in some airless Los Angeles studio. Though there’s an abundance of overdubbing (and even some outside assistance from saxophonist Steve Douglas and former Electric Flag keyboardist Barry Goldberg), Spector lets the Ramones speak for themselves. He’s created a setting that’s rich and vibrant and surging with power, but it’s the Ramones who are spotlighted, not their producer. More than ever before, Spector has managed to conceal his considerable art and thus reaffirm it.
Phil Spector’s triumph here is the strikingly delicate and beautifully conceived “Danny Says,” an intricate latticework of single-string guitar lines and distant, soaring power chords crowned by what may well be the most expertly idiomatic vocal that Joey Ramone has yet recorded. Indeed, throughout the album, Spector has set off Joey’s deceptively skillful singing in a clear and often moving manner that may have even the Ramones’ most ardent admirers shaking their heads in awe. The yearning vocal that floats and pleads over the “Palisades Park”-style keyboard embroidery of “I Can’t Make It on Time” (a tune that vies with “Danny Says” for best-cut honors) is terrific. And in the churning “I’m Affected,” Joey seems so aggressively love-crazed that he sounds like the Iggy Pop of Raw Power.
These are End of the Century‘s finest tracks, and they’d be magic moments on any self-respecting radio station. Whether or not they’ll actually take up serious residence on the airwaves is obviously a source of continuing concern to the band. In the LP’s opener, “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?,” the Ramones hearken back to the era of “Hullabaloo, Upbeat, Shindig and Ed Sullivan too,” to the golden age of rock & roll that they’ve watched slowly slip away: “We need change, we need it fast/Before rock’s just part of the past/’Cause lately it all sounds the same to me.” For good measure, they’ve also rerecorded the ridiculously rousing theme song from their 1979 movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Here, Johnny Ramone whips off some guitar fills so classically zingy they might even bring a smile of vague recognition from the bemused lips of Jeff Beck.
There are other high points. “Chinese Rock,” a composition first cut by New York City’s favorite down-and-outers, the Heartbreakers, is a walloping and witty junkie’s lament that sounds strange coming from such essentially clean-cut lads as the Ramones (though it’s neatly balanced by the get-it-together sagacity of “This Ain’t Havana,” with its loony “ba-ba-banana” refrain). “All the Way” and “High Risk Insurance,” while comparatively perfunctory, are purposeful rockers, far from filler.
In fact, the only real clinker here is the Ramones’ sludged-out rehash of the Ronettes antiquity, “Baby, I Love You,” a bad idea to begin with, and one that’s further burdened by the cheesiest string arrangement this side of the Longines Symphonette. Equally disposable, given the high quality of most of the material, are “The Return of Jackie and Judy” (lots of verve and nice handclaps, but still basically a retread from a previous album) and “Let’s Go,” whose overly familiar cartoon jingoism has an ugly ring in the current political atmosphere.
End of the Century may not be the Ramones’ best record (I’d give the nod to Leave Home or Rocket to Russia), but it may be the best one that a large number of listeners are likely to hear. Being a Ramones LP, it’s kind of great just by definition. Whether it’ll prove to be the salvation of rock & roll radio is up in the air. Tune in and see.